Netanyahu departs for 5-day trip to France and Hungary
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Netanyahu departs for 5-day trip to France and Hungary

After a day in Paris, PM controversially set to head to Budapest, for a series of meetings with PM Viktor Orban

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu boarding a plane to Uganda at Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016. Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu boarding a plane to Uganda at Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016. Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for a five-day day trip to Europe late Saturday night that will include his first powwow with new French President Emmanuel Macron and about half a dozen meetings with Hungary’s controversial leader Viktor Orban in Budapest.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara took off from Ben-Gurion Airport at around midnight on Saturday, heading to Paris for a ceremony Sunday marking the 75th anniversary of the deportations of French Jewry during the Holocaust.

“We are strengthening our ties with countries on five continents — Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America, but it also very important to us to strengthen ties with European countries,” the prime minister said as he boarded the plane Saturday night.

Originally, Netanyahu had planned to take off for the French capital on Friday afternoon, with his office explaining that it wanted to avoid Israeli officials possibly desecrating the Jewish Sabbath by preparing his departure before sundown on Saturday.

But on Thursday, his aides announced that Netanyahu’s delegation would indeed leave on Saturday night. His office did not explain the sudden change of plan, which was announced as police questioned several of his aides and other top officials that day in connection to a scandal over the purchase of German submarines.

On Sunday morning, Netanyahu is scheduled to participate in a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, a mass-arrest of over 13,000 French Jews in July 1942 that was part of the Nazi effort to eradicate France’s Jews.

Of those who were taken in the Vel d’Hiv sweeps, fewer than a hundred — and not one of the 4,000 children — survived.

A memorial to the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, on Quai de Grenelle in Paris. (CC BY-SA Leonieke Aalders, Wikimedia commons)
A memorial to the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, on Quai de Grenelle in Paris. (CC BY-SA Leonieke Aalders, Wikimedia commons)

The 75-year-old episode caused controversy during the spring presidential campaign in France, when far-right candidate Marine Le Pen insisted France was “not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv.” France’s then-president Jacques Chirac recognized French responsibility for the deportations in July 1995.

At noon, Netanyahu will meet Macron for their first official meeting in the Élysée. After their meeting, the two leaders will make statements to the press.

Macron hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris last week. In a press conference following their meeting, the French president reiterated his country’s support for a two-state solution and denounced Israeli settlement expansions.

On Monday, Netanyahu is slated to fly to Hungary, marking the first visit to the country by an Israeli premier since the end of Communism. His embrace of a government seen by many as peddling in anti-Semitism has been the subject of much controversy in recent days.

On Tuesday morning, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will welcome Netanyahu at the parliament in Budapest. After their meeting, the two leaders will deliver remarks to the press, before they are joined by their wives for lunch. In the afternoon, Netanyahu will lay a wreath at the Monument to the Hungarian Unknown Soldier and meet with Hungary’s president, János Áder, before meeting for a third time with Orban over dinner.

Wednesday is to be devoted to meetings with the leaders of the Visegrád Group, a consortium of four Central European states: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Netanyahu will have lunch together with Orban, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. He will also conduct bilateral meetings with the other three leaders.

In the afternoon, Netanyahu and Orban will attend a Hungarian-Israeli business forum.

Bilateral trade between Hungary and Israel exceeds $500 million, and Budapest recently opened a $50 million euro credit line at Hungary’s Eximbank to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Israeli businesses. Budapest has also expressed interest in purchasing Israeli natural gas.

“Hungary and Israel are very important political, academic and economic allies,” Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said last month during a visit in Jerusalem, as Netanyahu’s office indicated that Budapest and Jerusalem were looking to advance bilateral economic cooperation mainly in automotive technologies, energy, water and academics.

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu will visit Budapest’s magnificent Dohány Street Synagogue and meet with leaders of the local Jewish community.

He is scheduled to leave Budapest at Thursday around noon, arriving in Israel in the afternoon.

In recent days, there have been calls, including by prominent leaders of Hungary’s 100,000-strong Jewish community, for Netanyahu to cancel his Budapest trip after Orban praised Miklos Horthy, the World War II-era leader who allied Hungary with Nazi Germany leading to the deportation and murder of half a million Jews, and after the government launched a billboard campaign against Jewish billionaire George Soros, which was seen by many as anti-Semitic.

On June 21, Obran described Horthy and other Hungarian leaders as “exceptional statesmen” for leading the country after the traumatic disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. His comments raised the ire of Israeli officials and Jewish groups, However, Netanyahu accepted the government’s clarification of the statements.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reacts during a joint press conference with the Austrian Chancellor in Budapest, on July 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / PETER KOHALMI)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reacts during a joint press conference with the Austrian Chancellor in Budapest, on July 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / PETER KOHALMI)

Szijjártó spoke by phone with Israel’s ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani and then published a statement detailing the content of the conversation. He said he assured the Israeli envoy that the Hungarian government has “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.” Concerning Horthy, the foreign minister said that he had “positive periods but also very negative periods.”

Referring to Horthy’s failure to protect the Jewish population during the war and his passing of anti-Semitic laws, the foreign minister said “all those are historical transgressions the seriousness of which can’t be diminished.”

In response, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the explanation was sufficient.

Hungarian Jews and Jewish groups were also outraged over the anti-Soros campaign, which featured large pictures of the Jewish businessman laughing, alongside the text: “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” a reference to government claims that Soros wants to force Hungary to allow in migrants.

András Heisler, who heads the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities, known as Mazsihisz, wrote in an open letter last week that “the billboard campaign, while not openly anti-Semitic, can still very much unleash uncontrolled anti-Semitic and other feelings. This poisonous message hurts all of Hungary.”

A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)
A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Amrani, the Israeli ambassador in Budapest, initially agreed, saying the billboard campaign not only evokes “sad memories but also sows hatred and fear.”

But the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Sunday issued a “clarification,” reportedly at Netanyahu’s behest, which states that while Israel deplores anti-Semitism and supports Jewish communities in confronting this hatred, criticism of Soros was legitimate.

“In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself,” the Foreign Ministry stated.

For Hungary’s Jews, this clarification, or “retraction,” as some called it, came “as an utter shock,” Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti, a senior official in the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities, told The Times of Israel last week. “We would expect the prime minister of Israel to stand up against all forms of explicit and implicit anti-Semitism — or even attacks that might trigger waves of anti-Semitism.”

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